Some say you should never meet your heroes, especially when it comes to classic cars. The thinking goes that you’ll often end up underwhelmed. This logic doesn’t compute for Bob Rath, who, after almost 40 years of a love affair with Minis from the Countryman wagon to the industrial Pick-up, finally nabbed the model he’s always wanted. The British Motor Corp. MINI Cooper S has always been about exceeding expectations since it first came to the U.S. in 1967, and it’s still full of surprises decades later, even to a Mini maniac like Rath.
The Mini craze hit Rath, like many others, during the 1960s while he was stationed with the military in Europe. He bought his first Mini in 1966, falling quickly for the car’s road-holding and lively handling. “Two of my Air Force buddies had a Sunbeam Tiger and a Triumph Spitfire, but the Mini won me over,” recalls Rath. “We’d set up autocross courses once the runways cleared, and my Mini would always win in the curves.”
Few could have predicted the sensation set off by a tiny, quirky, front-wheel-drive hatchback with an engine mounted sideways and a suspension that literally relied on big, cone-shape pieces of rubber. Even designer Alec Issigonis was blown away by the Mini’s popularity. Committed to the notion of the Mini as an everyman’s car, Issigonis initially resisted the idea of tuning the car for racing but eventually yielded after seeing a prototype from race-car builder John Cooper. (Cooper’s Formula 1 cars had won the constructors’ championship in 1959 and 1960.) Cooper S production began in 1963.
Rath’s 1969 Mini Cooper S is one of only 6,329 Mark II models that BMC built with the long-stroke, high-performance 1.3-liter engine between 1967 and 1971. Despite the Cooper S’s motorsports reputation, which famously included wins in the Rallye Monte Carlo in 1964, 1965, and 1967, few unmolested examples remain, and this Mk II is conspicuous for its fresh-from-the-factory presentation. For his part, Rath is thrilled with the low-end power and fully synchromesh four-speed gearbox, not to mention the oddball Hydrolastic suspension that originally came with this Mk II when BMC manufactured it in Australia.
The Hydrolastic suspension that Mini used only between 1964 and 1971 is a rare feature, since worn systems were difficult to repair and Cooper S purists usually replaced them with the rubber-cone system anyway. The Alex Moulton-designed setup relies on fluid-filled rubber springs that enhance suspension compliance even as they control body pitch and roll, although a Mini so equipped will squat under acceleration and dive more under braking than usual. “I just had to have it,” Rath says. “The ride quality is much improved.”
The only major modification Rath made is a switch from right- to left-hand drive, a simple conversion built into the Mini’s design to enable its production for markets worldwide. All of the tiny quirks that make this Australian-built Mini unique—such as its Morris badging, Mark I-style grille and taillights, combined with the Mark II’s black interior, plus roll-up windows with vent wings—are retained. Restored by its previous owner to near perfection, this Mini looks as if it has been yanked from a fashion catalog of the swinging ’60s. You have your 10-inch steel wheels, chrome caps for the dual fuel tanks, and a center-mounted speedometer, plus Rath keeps a wicker picnic basket in the trunk.
Cruising the hilly streets and waterfront avenues of the North Shore on New York’s Long Island, we feel like we’re starring in a classic movie (cue references to “The Italian Job,” both British and American versions) as we work the unassisted steering and knife through traffic. An output of 76 hp and 79 lb-ft of torque doesn’t sound like much, yet it’s still plenty for a car that weighs just more than 1,400 pounds. You hunch over the tilted steering wheel like a bus driver, but there’s no denying the great fun it is to drive such a nimble car around town.
For all of its performance and personality, this car still seems humble. It’s not a cartoon; it’s an honest instrument of functional practicality. Like most things people can’t help but love, the Mini Cooper S’s source of coolness is that it never tries too hard. Rath has met his hero, and like all his past Minis, it’s done nothing but bring him joy. “Once you get one,” he says, “it’s hard to let go.”
The InfoYears Produced 1967-1971
Number Sold 6,329
Original Price $2,461 (NADA*)
BMC really did reinvent the people’s car when it introduced the Mini in August 1959, and BMC and Alec Issigonis won the Dewar Trophy for this space- and fuel-efficient design as a result. The Mini became the template for future economy cars, and some 5,387,862 had been manufactured worldwide by the time production ended in October 2000. Rust has left fewer examples of the classic Mini on the road in the U.S. today than you would guess, yet a thriving subculture does exist in numerous ownership clubs in every state. The affordability of collectible examples has also led younger owners of the modern Mini to take over ownership of the classic examples from the baby boomers who had them. The question is whether these tiny cars are compatible with modern traffic.